Charlotte County bans phosphate industry

South side of the Piney Point gypstack. Charlotte County has voted to ban such structures.
South side of the Piney Point gypstack. Charlotte County has voted to ban such structures.(Courtesy of the Center for Biological Diversity.)
Published: Jan. 26, 2022 at 10:08 AM EST
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MURDOCK — Charlotte County commissioners unanimously approved a change to zoning bylaws Tuesday that will prohibit phosphate mining and related activities such as phosphate manufacturing.

According to our coverage partners from the Port Charlotte Sun, the move comes as a block to one of the world’s dominant corporations and fertilizer manufacturers, Mosaic, which has most of its operations up the Peace River into Hardee and Polk counties.

The move follows a decision by DeSoto County in October to ban phosphate gypstacks, one of the most toxic byproducts of phosphate mining. Mosaic has sought to rezone land to allow phosphate mining in the county’s northwest corner, near Hardee and Manatee counties.

The only discussion Tuesday night was praise from Mosaic’s most vocal opponent, Tim Ritchie, who began March Against Mosaic more than three years ago.

“This is probably one of the greatest things to happen in Charlotte County,” said Ritchie, a Punta Gorda resident. “By conserving our county, we are protecting our drinking and bathing water.”

Prohibited with the new regulation will be mining as well as any activities that process phosphorus into phosphate used in fertilizer. Also prohibited will be the creation of phosphogypsum waste stacks, which the industry started creating generations ago as a way to stack the slightly radioactive waste material. Unlike other countries, the U.S. government does not allow phosphate waste to be used in road construction.

Mosaic has sought changes to that restriction as an option that would allow the industry locally to rely less on the gypstacks, but has encountered setbacks to changing those rules.

Gypstacks became a household word in Manatee County in 2021 when a gypstack at Piney Point ruptured, forcing the release of millions of gallons of toxic wastewater into Tampa Bay to avert an even bigger catastrophe.

Mosaic has said it has no plans to set up operations in Charlotte County, saying Charlotte County has no significant phosphorus reserves.

Mosaic spokeswoman Jackie Barron, is a statement to the Daily Sun, said the vote was political theater, and an insult to workers. “The whole move by the county is an unfortunate waste of time. The overture creates more theater than addressing actual, local challenges,” she wrote.

“It is an indirect attack on the 3,000 essential workers helping to ensure a domestic source of fertilizer exists so this country isn’t reliant on other countries for its food. And it’s an insult to the tens of thousands whose businesses depend on the Florida Phosphate Industry for their livelihood but again, at the end of the day, it doesn’t actually matter.”

Mosaic opponents unsuccessfully fought Mosaic’s application several years ago to renew its permit to discharge storm water from its industrial site in Bartow, near Lakeland, but connected by the Peace River.

Mosaic says its activities are highly regulated, and pose no threat to the environment.

State Sen. Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula, has said he opposes Charlotte County’s denial of phosphate operations, given the necessity of fertilizer in feeding the world.

Industry experts at the Florida Industrial and Phosphate Research Institutes have said mining of phosphate in Florida is not likely to expand dramatically due in part to the value of the real estate for development, and also due to the difficulty in reaching deeper deposits. However, if all the ore were extracted, the supply could last another 300 years, the institute states.

“I give you all a big handshake and a big hug,” said Ritchie, and he invited board members to join him in his next fight over Mosaic’s mining operations in Central Florida.

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